By George Karras, “Orthodox Heritage” editor, May 27th, 2020.
Today, at the end of the most tragic Lenten and Paschal season His Bride has ever lived, we celebrate the Apodosis of Pascha and tomorrow Orthodoxy observes His Holy Ascension. Sadly, most Orthodox churches shall remain either closed or with limited (at best) participation, as priests all over the western world willingly implemented the directives of their hierarchs to “ensure the safety of the flock.” Those who seek to finally receive His Holy Body and Blood shall be exposed to the machinations and blasphemous creativity of the various hierarchs and dioceses, with very few exceptions, and no spiritual basis whatsoever; as always, their justification shall remain that it is all for “the health and safety of the faithful.” This comes as even CDC declares the mortality rate of Covid-19 to be at levels of any other ordinary flu virus. In the end, once all data is gathered, a handful of honest world leaders will inform their citizens that this entire reaction to Covid-19 was not just unnecessary but completely destructive. Honest historians shall catalogue it as one of humanity’s darkest pages.
Let us return, however, to the topic at hand. As has been the case in past ecumenist-related positions, selected theologians (of rather peculiar background and questionable educational reputation) will misquote one or two Church Fathers, or call upon the Church’s history to justify whatever hierarchal invention has been presented to the faithful. Such quotes are always out of context, and, without exception, inaccurate when the faithful are presented with the source document in its totality. The faithful, on the other hand, stand aside, trying to determine the why’s and the how’s, and all in the midst of a likely economic devastation for their families.
Let us examine recent and current ecclesiastical events a little closer.
The Closure of Churches Elimination of the Eucharist for the Faithful
Our Lord tells us that He is the bread (manna) from Heaven (Jn 6:35, 38). I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. (Jn 6:35). He also instructed us that to eat of this New Bread meant never seeing death (Jn 6:49-50). He says ...unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. (Jn 6:53). And, as if to settle completely the issue, Jesus adds, for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. (Jn 6:55). It is the result of these divine admonitions that the Holy Church decreed the mandatory, frequent inclusion of the Eucharist as well as their liturgical participation of the flock into their lives. Specifically, the ninth Apostolic Canon required that: All those faithful who enter and listen to the Scriptures, but do not stay for prayer and Holy Communion must be excommunicated, on the ground that they are causing the Church a breach of order. As the Church evolved through its early history, church attendance was also included within the Church canons: In case any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone else on the list of the Clergy, or any layman, without any graver necessity or any particular difficulty compelling him to absent himself from his own church for a very long time, fails to attend church on Sundays for three consecutive weeks, while living in the city, if he be a Cleric, let him be deposed from office; but if he be a layman, let him be removed from Communion. (Canon LXXX, “The Rudder,” p. 384). Naturally, the faithful who desired to attend and partake of the Holy Gifts, during this Covid-19 crisis, bear no accountability—such accountability is placed upon those who closed the churches and established attendance restrictions.
In spite of the aforementioned scriptural passages and Church decrees, the majority of the western hierarchs willingly (and sadly without any opposition whatsoever) agreed to withhold the Holy Gifts from His flock. The admonitions of the courageous Greek priest Fr. Vasileios Volouthakis (during his Holy Friday homily) remain available in the digital media to remind all of the atrocity of such decision: “The hierarchs and the archons of the people consented to scourge and imprison Jesus, so that they can debar and boycott Him away from His flock, Shame on the hierarchs and the civil leaders of the people, shame on them. This shame shall never be erased from history; this indignation of the flock shall never be erased from its conscience. The wrath and the curse of God shall come upon the heads of all those who decided to withhold the Body and Blood of our Lord from the faithful… Shame! What has become of the Church of Greece? Shame! I am shamed and question as to why the people of God are not as astonished as I would have expected. They have imprisoned us and closed the churches over a deception, an obvious medical deception…” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CI3cbQYchHE).
It has been said by those in positions of ecclesiastical authority that since local synods had decided the closure of the churches, any exception is unacceptable and constitutes disobedience; there is nothing further from the truth. The decision of a (geographically) local synod is never binding to the flock; the people are not obliged to follow such local synodical decision. The final judge of the validity of such a decision is the flock, and this is 100% patristically based, throughout the long history of the Church. Let us be reminded of the many cases whereby local synods adopted heretical views only to be rejected by the people and reversed in subsequent synodical gatherings. Of course, should such closure be warranted indeed, then the lead hierarchs should have called a pan-Orthodox Synod before uniquely deciding and acting on their own and inflicting such great spiritual harm upon the flock. And now, after several months of longing and suffering, our Orthodox Church’s life enters a new phase; it comes just days after the multi-week shut-down of the liturgical life for the faithful, throughout the Great Holy Lent, Pascha, and most of the post Paschal time period. Let us be reminded that serious pandemics, Muslim and German occupations, communism, world wars, civil wars and earthquakes never before resulted in the closure of churches.
His flock withstood during the last few months an event that is indeed unique to the Church’s 2,000-year history! The clergy’s “instructions” to observe the services via live webcasts has been ludicrous and horrific; is Orthodoxy entering the phase of televangelism now? How embarrassing and shameful to consider that standing in front of a television with lit Paschal candles is a form of oikonomia for the celebration of His Resurrection by the faithful. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of souls, and especially young children, were prohibited from receiving His Body and Blood. Needy souls were not allowed to have Holy Confession, unless it was “in secret,” and never in their parish church. Why? Was the Covid-19 virus present only in the parish churches but not in the crowded stores and pharmacies?
Celebrant clergy (in empty churches and with just a chanter and perhaps a deacon) read aloud during the Pascha services the words of St. John Chrysostom: Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away. Yet the flock went hungry, they did not participate in the Holy Eucharist; they stood staring at cold television sets that exemplified resemblances of something religious yet so far away. The few souls that dared to defy orders, mostly in Greece and other eastern European nations, found themselves fined and / or arrested. Blessed be the clergy that found ways around the bishopric and civil directives!
There is, however, an even greater tragedy: We wonder: how many souls departed this temporary earthly life, un-confessed and un-communed, as the great majority of western clergy eagerly over-adopted and blindly followed the shutdown directives? Is there any spiritual accountability towards such a spiritual tragedy? No Covid-19 death can possibly outweigh the heartbreak of a dying man or woman (and especially a child) who desires but is unable to confess and receive the Holy Sacraments before departing this life. We would also be remiss if we did not emphasize that these ridiculous restrictions took place even in states such as Arizona, whereby its governor included religious activities as Constitutionally protected (which means that the Arizona Governor, just like several governors in the USA, deemed religious activities as community essential). This, however, meant nothing to the bishops as they blindly made their directives universal in all cities and states, irrespective of local laws and limited restrictions within several geographic regions. As a brethren reminded us, “it is as if they were in competition to outdo the civil authorities!”
Luckily, not all clergy complied with the bishopric directives—there have been a handful of exceptions and a few, very few blessed souls were afforded the observance of a somewhat normal Lenten and Paschal season. We stand in appreciation of the position taken by the civil authorities in the United States, via President Trump, on May 22nd, 2020: “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but left out churches and other houses of worship—that’s not right—so I’m correcting this injustice. I am ordering governors to allow houses of worship to open immediately, declaring them “essential” to American life during COVID-19. So, the governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer, not less.”
This directive was followed by several churches; tragically, some of them (rather most of the Orthodox churches in America), selected to still remain closed to the faithful for the weekend of May 24th, as bishops gathered with legal advisors to compose policies and procedures, again in the interest of “the health and safety of the faithful.” We have been provided multi-page documents originated by several dioceses; all of them have their own unique rules and regulations, especially as it relates to the delivery of the Holy Eucharist. The exhaustive details and specific guidelines developed by most dioceses compete and likely exceed anything corporate entities such as Home Depot and Costco have developed. Worship in most Orthodox churches have now become a complex process.
The “New” Eucharistic Approach
For two thousand years, clergy has been transmitting the grace of the Holy Mysteries in a similar manner, always having celebrants and participants alike, come in contact with the Holy Chalice (and lavitha in second millennium). Modern logic or ungodly doubts have been absent; such blasphemous thoughts never entered the teaching or practices of the Church, until now. Participants witnessed a perpetual great miracle. Is it possible that now, because of a new-found flu virus, the Holy Communion can cause sickness or the slightest damage? Is it possible for the Body and Blood of our Lord and God to contaminate our body and blood? For centuries, the same Holy Chalice and the same tongs have been in use, never washed, never disinfected. The priests of the nursing homes and hospitals, even the ones for the most infectious diseases, give the Holy Communion to the faithful and reverently consume the Gifts and live long, healthy lives.
It is this history and experience that lead us to the only logical and acceptable conclusion: the proposed deviations in the delivery of Holy Communion to the faithful, either via “plastic spoons” or dipping of the lavitha into alcohol for … sterilization, or the use of several “spoons,” (as directed by the GOA Archbishop) all constitute an absolute blasphemy towards the Holy Spirit. For any person, hierarch or otherwise, to infer or to explicitly state that the current method poses any threat to the faithful who approach the Holy Chalice with faith and fear of God is preposterous and unfounded in the long history on the Church. It is best that any person who has any doubts (i.e., lack of faith) relative to the sanctity of the Holy Eucharist, as it has been delivered to the faithful for nearly 1,000 years, to not approach the Holy Chalice.
The faithful ought to question any clergy and especially any bishop wishing to deviate from Holy Tradition: during their own lifetime of receiving Holy Communion, how many faithful approached the Chalice with herpes, AIDS, hepatitis, flu and colds, mouth cancers and every other common or uncommon disease of our days? Why is it that parishes and communities never experienced any related pandemics? Why are the priests (who consume the remnant of the Holy Gifts in the end) still alive? What has changed with Covid-19, when medical evidence every day points to its “ordinary flu strain” nature?
Let us also make a necessary correction towards the terminology utilized by clergy eager to abandon traditional Eucharistic methods. The Holy Eucharist is being delivered via “tongs”—lavitha in Gk; it is not a “spoon,”—κοχλιάριον in Gk. The term lavitha refers to the burning coal given to Isaiah by an Angel with tongs. (Isa 6:6-6:7): Then flew one of the Seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar. And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. We suspect that other plans are hiding behind such measures and we are quite confident that even post-pandemic, most of the established liturgical deviations will be maintained. How else would the ecumenist movement be able to join with the Latins and share the same format of Eucharist? Are Latin-type “wafers” the next plan by the appointed hierarchy of the Orthodox Church?
A New Iconoclasm?
We wish to also address the new iconoclastic directives prohibiting the kissing of the priest’s right hand, delivery of the antithoron in small zip-lock baggies (and not by the priest openly, as before), and especially the veneration and kissing of holy icons. The faithful kiss the priest’s right hand from time to time and always when he delivers antithoron. This is an act of veneration. The people are venerating the High Priesthood of Christ, of which the parish priest is simply a participant. They also venerate the hand that sanctifies the Holy Gifts; to contemplate the likely spread of a virus via the hand that just sanctified bread and wine into His Body and Blood is as illogical and blasphemous as the questioning of the Holy Eucharist’s delivery via the lavitha.
With regard to the holy icons, all Orthodox hierarchs and clergy have been taught in theological schools the mandatory veneration of icons, as based on the 7th Ecumenical Synod. Let us be reminded on the significance of icons within the liturgical life of the Church.
The power of iconography is not in the matter but in who icons point to, in who lies behind the images. Saint Basil the Great had written long before: The honor given to the image passes on to the prototype that lies behind it. The doctrinal significance of icons is that they proclaim the Incarnation. Therefore, the Fathers of the Church decreed that not only are icons permissible but that it is essential to have them—for to reject them is to deny Christ’s humanity, his materiality. Therefore, the Fathers continued, as the sacred and life-giving Cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be exhibited on the walls of churches, in homes and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who see them. The Fathers made it clear that icons are both teaching devices and also means of grace, points of contact with God and the saints.
The Seventh Ecumenical Synod among it decrees stipulated that that veneration and honor shall be paid to the representations of the Lord and of the Saints and that they should be bowed to, and saluted with kisses, and attended with lights and the offering of incense. And for the greater establishment of the veneration of the holy images, the Seventh Ecumenical Synod anathematized all those who made war against the images, and set forth the veneration, and established it forever, as is evident from the ninth canon of that synod. That none of the books containing the heresy of the traducers of the Christians are to be hid. ALL the childish devices and mad ravings which have been falsely written against the venerable images, must be delivered up to the Episcopate of Constantinople, that they may be locked away with other heretical books. And if anyone is found hiding such books, if he be a bishop or presbyter or deacon, let him be deposed; but if he be a monk or layman, let him be anathema. (Canon IX, 7th Ecumenical Synod).
One of the greatest pandemics in modern history was that of 1918. Albeit forgotten, it was virus-based pandemic that lasted about 15 months, from spring 1918 to early summer 1919. It infected 500 million people—about a third of the world’s population at the time. Humanity experience 50,000,000 deaths. Humanity had to concurrently deal with World War I. The Covid-19 experience stands in minuscule comparison, both in terms of its ferocity as well as its mortality. Yet there were no church closures—on the contrary, people flooded the churches in prayer to be delivered from this (true) pandemic. In the adjacent picture, we see the faithful overflowing a cathedral in San Francisco as they crowd fills the street in prayer, with no regard towards “social distancing.” And none of them with any “masks.”
The Covid-19 time-period comes not long after the sad and tragic schism our Church experienced following the Ukrainian mess caused by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The manner by which the Church’s hierarchs are addressing “post-pandemic liturgical practices” will only further divide His Bride and deepen, or perhaps even cause, new schisms. It is rather apparent that great confusion, anxiety, sadness and a form of a psychological withdrawal is prevailing amongst most the flock. What most of the clergy has and continues to call oikonomia we call paranomia (lawlesnness). And we do not stand alone in our characterization. The mess that the great majority of western bishops created with this “event,” in the final word, is the clearest indication yet of the complete lack of any spiritual leadership on their part. It is tragic that in this one crucial moment in history, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is blindingly absent. We believe that if the Church of Constantinople had not fallen into its multi-decade ecumenical delusion(s) and preserved the Church’s dogma, then it would command respect among hierarchs and flocks worldwide and all bishops would have looked and followed Phanar’s patristically-based lead. Such fallen, confusing and uncoordinated rules, regulations, policies, procedures and liturgical practices would not have been possible.
In his one and only address to the faithful, the Ecumenical Patriarch exclaimed: “Perhaps some of you have felt that these drastic measures undermine or harm our faith. However, that which is at stake is not our faith—it is the faithful. It is not Christ—it is our Christians. It is not the divine-man—but human beings.” We beg to differ with the Bishop of Constantinople—since when have wars, serious pandemics, hunger and martyrdom ever compromised the faithful flock? We dare suggest that if anything, they have strengthened it. We instead believe that the newly found liturgical practices being adopted by hierarchs worldwide do undermine the Faith 100%; such practices and teachings damage the possibility of spiritual healing for a great majority of the flock.
It is the therapeutic nature of the Church as a spiritual hospital, providing a means for acquiring divine power and grace for the healing of diseases of soul and body, that our bishops must focus upon. As such, litanies and Holy Unction, Confession and Holy Communion are what the faithful need; worldly pre-occupations with new social norms, isolation, fear, seclusion, and dissociative imaginations are neither Orthodox nor beneficial whatsoever. They are instead the direct product of the Evil One’s influence upon the current true pandemic of faithlessness. As we close our painful post-Paschal thoughts, we also self-reflect and conclude that a lot of what we are experiencing is likely the result of our (the flock’s) fallen spiritual state. May we improve ourselves, for we remain convinced that should the flock (under the leadership of few brave and patristically-bound dedicated shepherds) repent and pray, God shall send us the bishops we desire. Until then, we will be “stuck” with the hierarchs that we deserve…